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Review Round-up: Is La Cage Another Menier Hit?

The Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Jerry Herman’s 1983 Broadway musical comedy La Cage Aux Folles finally officially opened on Wednesday (9 January 2008, previews from 27 November 2007). Though running since the end of November, the press performance was rescheduled twice.

Originally due to open on 3 December 2007 (previews from 23 November), La Cage’s first press night was cancelled after rehearsals were thrown into disarray because of flu running rampant through the company. A second press night arranged for 13 December was then axed as star Douglas Hodge continued to recover from a serious chest infection (See News, 28 Nov 2007).

Based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret and subsequent 1978 French-Italian screen version, the musical focuses on a gay couple – Georges (played by Philip Quast), the manager of a St Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin, his star attraction (Douglas Hodge) - and the adventures that ensue when Georges' son Jean-Michel brings home his fiancée's ultra-conservative parents to meet them.

In addition to Quast and Hodge, the 17-strong cast features Neil McDermott, Alicia Davies, Jason Pennycooke, Iain Mitchell and Una Stubbs. La Cage Aux Folles is directed by Terry Johnson and designed by David Farley, with costumes by Matthew Wright, lighting by David Howe, orchestration by Jason Carr and musical direction by Nigel Lilley.

Did first night critics think the revival was worth the wait? “You betcha” declared Whatsonstage.com’s Michael Coveney, with the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer echoing Coveney’s sentiments and predicting a quick transfer. However, elsewhere verdicts were more mixed. Philip Quast was praised for his “fine singing voice” by some, but others described his performance as wooden, while Douglas Hodge as Albin either went on a “dazzling journey” or settled for “flouncing, flaunting grotesqueries”. The Cagelles won admiration all round, particularly for their high-kicking dance numbers within the confines of the intimate Menier stage.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “Was it worth the wait? You betcha. Not only has the 1983 show – seen in the West End in 1986 starring George Hearn as Albin and Denis Quilley as his partner Georges, the club owner – found new life on a more compressed scale; it boasts a really extraordinary central performance … What Hodge offers is a dazzling journey through the joys and pitfalls of his status in society … Beside him, Philip Quast’s Georges is a rock-like presence with a tender baritonal voice. Herman’s show tunes are as rousing as ever … the score has been brilliantly re-orchestrated by Jason Carr. Lynne Page’s choreography, David Farley’s set design and Matthew Wright’s costumes are all superb. A strong supporting cast includes Tara Hugo as a bitchy restaurateur and Una Stubbs and Iain Mitchell as the fiancee’s bemused then thoroughly absorbed parents. ‘Les Cagelles’ are all brilliant and you can have fun spotting the one real girl (Kay Murphy) in their number, especially during the legs-in-the-air sequence.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Farce comes after Act I has almost too painstakingly set up the situation. Philip Quast's wearily laid-back Georges, who is the club's owner and Albin's long-time lover, has a son who wants to marry. But how to handle the inevitable meeting between the homosexuals whom Jean-Michel regards as his true parents and his bride-to-be's father, a ferociously homophobic puritan? The answer is to pass off Albin as the boy's raunchy Uncle Al and then, when that falters, as his mother. If the result isn't as funny as it might be, it's probably the fault of the librettist, Harvey Fierstein. You certainly can't blame Hodge, who off-stage resembles a housewife on a McGill postcard, grimacing at her signs of ageing, and on-stage looks and sounds magnificent. To see him crunching rather than merely pursing his lips, or painfully contorting himself into a besuited chimp as he tries to pass as hetero, is to marvel at his range. Yet somehow I laughed less than I expected to. Nevertheless, Johnson has achieved wonders with the Menier Chocolate Factory's small stage, embracing dancers who tap, do the can-can and end up clattering onto the tables at which some spectators sit. Nor does it miss the show's point.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The Menier has acquired a high reputation for its musicals, with revivals of Sondheim's sophisticated Sunday in the Park with George and the deliciously schlocky Little Shop of Horrors both transferring to the West End. I have little doubt that this wildly comic and touching revival of La Cage Aux Folles will follow them there … The show may now seem too soft-centred for some tastes, and even in Terry Johnson's robust and splendidly performed production there are moments when you find yourself thinking wistfully of the greater daring and emotional clout of a show like Cabaret, which occupies similar dramatic territory. But it seems churlish to carp when a show is as much fun as this … It's all a bit predictable, but it works … The other great asset is Douglas Hodge ... He is every inch a dame … Philip Quast is superb too as the far less flamboyant Georges, lending the show an unexpected dignity, and with the exception of insufferably bland performances from the actors playing the heterosexual love interest, La Cage Aux Folles proves a constant pleasure, and exactly the winter warmer the dark nights of January require.”
    • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Douglas Hodge, a Pinter specialist who often plays rugged, slightly sweaty toughs, makes an unlikely drag star … Any shock value the plot had about gayness and transvestism has long evaporated although this production, interestingly, conveys moments of slightly edgy aggression … For most of the time this story is now little more than happy comedy … The chorus of imperiously legged blokes (and one girl) is astonishing … The tiny Menier has been turned into a riot of pink and set out partly like a cabaret venue. The huge cast do their best not to bump into one another, but it needs a far bigger space, and may well find one on the West End. Philip Quast, as Georges, did not really persuade me for a moment that he and Mr Hodge’s Albin were a gay item. It was like seeing a couple of rugger players smooching one another.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “Terry Johnson’s production in the excruciatingly cramped Menier Chocolate Factory only partly wins me over … I wish Johnson had had the courage to update the piece from its Seventies roots. There is nothing in the script to prevent Georges and Albin being an entirely modern male couple, and the excellent Jason Pennycooke, Jacob and the Cagelles dancers could all be 21st-century creations … Hodge, utterly charismatic in drag, is less confident sans wig, in a tired pastiche of an effeminate gay man based somewhere between John Inman and Hilda Ogden. Philip Quast, for all his fine singing voice, plays Georges as a block of wood, and one of the junior members of the cast should have his Equity card ripped up for the mincing that is meant to show he has turned gay. There is a delightful cameo by Una Stubbs and the spirited second act builds to a touching and surprisingly radical climax. But the production is hampered by an affinity-gap with the world it purports to portray, and my loyalty is still to the film versions.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Instead of putting a contemporary gloss on Albin, whom book-writer Harvey Fierstein portrays as a temperamental, golden-hearted queen of the semi-stifled sulk, Terry Johnson's old-fashioned production, staged amidst the gawdy tackiness of David Farley's set and an eloquent little band on the sidelines, settles for the soft option of derisive burlesque. Hodge could have updated Albin, emphasising his courageous determination to be himself, making him at once attractive and transvestite-inclined, camp and feminine to his finger tips as he belts out his big numbers on stage. Instead he settles for flouncing, flaunting grotesqueries … In a production that revels in the sentimental romanticism of ‘The Best of Times’ and that defiant, gay anthem ‘I Am What I Am’, Philip Quast cuts a wooden figure. His Georges beautifully delivers ‘Song on the Sand’ but betrays scant serious feeling for an equally distant Albin. It is in the drag queen numbers, with tap dancing and whirling of fans in small-time imitation of Busby Berkeley that the amusing male transvestite dancers, particularly Nicholas Cunningham's long-legged Hanna, make La Cage Aux Folles swing.”

      - by Tom Atkins

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